What’s the difference between a happy person and an unhappy one? A recent study conducted by University of Maryland sociologists finds that happy people are more likely to socialize, participate in religious organizations, and read the newspaper—and they’re much less likely to watch television.
The study, which appears in the December issue of Social Indicators Research, examined 35 years of survey data on more than 45,000 people. The researchers, John Robinson and Steven Martin, also analyzed “time diaries,” in which individuals tracked their daily activities.
Robinson and Martin found that out of 10 activities, only one, TV watching, significantly correlated with lower levels of happiness. People who described themselves as not happy watched 30 percent more TV each day than those who considered themselves very happy.
So does watching TV actually cause unhappiness, or are unhappy people just more likely to watch TV?
Martin suggests that both explanations may be true. Happiness is deeply tied to having strong relationships with others, and individuals who lack these kinds of social connections may be drawn to the television, he says, while the more time spent watching TV may actually diminish social ties. “Television doesn’t provide any social interaction so it doesn’t help individuals form new relationships,” says Martin.
Still, Martin and Robinson say future research is necessary to disentangle the links betwen televison watching and happiness. Martin says that in order to assess cause and effect, researchers will need to analyze large samples of individuals over time, including people who either start or stop watching TV for some reason.
For now, their research provides a compelling portrait of how happy and unhappy people pass the days, weeks, and years.